Even in 2006, something like the Senate plan likely could have attracted 218 votes in the House—but not a majority of Republicans. Faced with a collision between his two political imperatives—courting Hispanics and mobilizing conservatives—Bush blinked, allowing House leaders to replace the Senate bill with enforcement-only legislation, which he signed that fall. These choices began the GOP’s slide among Hispanics that continues unabated: Hispanic support for Republican House candidates plummeted from 44 percent in 2004 to just 29 percent in 2006, presaging Mitt Romney’s disastrous 27 percent showing among those voters in 2012.
That slippage is one of the two most important differences in the political environment around immigration between 2006 and today. Back then, as Bonjean notes, hardly any House Republicans argued that the GOP needed to pass a plan attractive to minorities. But many GOP leaders now see that as self-preservation. “The political imperative has shifted the tectonic plates,” says Frank Sharry, a key player in the 2006 debate who remains central as executive director of America’s Voice, which backs full citizenship for immigrants. “Immigration was viewed as a wedge issue for Republicans in 2006. Now it’s viewed as a wedge issue for Democrats.”
The “Gang of Eight” proposal released this week makes it likely that, as in 2006, the Senate will eventually pass a bipartisan immigration bill. Once again, there are probably 218 House votes for such a plan, but not a majority of the majority Republicans. That raises another key difference from 2006: Hastert faced little pressure to consider the Senate bill, because Bush bit his tongue when the speaker buried it. If House Republicans shelve another bipartisan Senate plan in 2013, they should expect much more public heat, because Obama won’t be as deferential.